Friday, May 19, 2017

The Ephemeral Antagonist: Conflict in Narrative

The most common narrative conflict we see in fiction today is what is know as Person Vs. Person. You have your protagonist working with/against your antagonist and the two play off one another creating the narrative conflict throughout the arc. This generally ends with one or more deaths/incarcerations what have you.

But there are other forms of narrative conflict that don't involve an antagonist.

There's the old standby Person Vs. Nature, which is generally exemplified by books like Hatchet and short stories like To Start a Fire (which I read in Middle-School and still haunts me to this day). For those of you not familiar with the term. It's generally a protagonist thrown up against the elements. So a blizzard or a scorching desert. It's a person vs. the jaguar stalking them through the night. (Though there are personified examples of person vs. animal where the animal definitely feels like a definitive antagonist).

We also have Person Vs. Self, Person Vs. Society, and others. They important thing is that it's a protagonist thrown up against something/someone. So, to simplify this:

Conflict =  the Protagonist VS. Something/Someone

That's it. That's conflict. Now, the truth is, not all fiction utilizes the antagonist as a person or a beast, or monster. Some fiction works quite well without an antagonist. It utilizes some other sort of conflict to get the job done. 

I tend to steer away from centralized antagonists in my work. Not consciously, mind you. While my stories do tend to have a villain, that character may not actually be the antagonist of the story or they may not have much of a presence within the story. There's nothing precisely wrong with that. There are going to be misdirects, on occasion, when it comes to identifying the root of your story's conflict. 

A trilogy I was working on last year had elements of different narrative conflicts with no unifying antagonist, and I was having some trouble sorting out why, as I'd plotted the damn things. It only later occurred to me while writing book three, that the antagonist had been a steady presence all along. I just hadn't put two and two together. Now, that said, that still wasn't the driving conflict.

The best example of another author who does what I call an "ephemeral antagonist" is JK Rowling with Voldemort. He is a felt presence throughout the series. His agents are everywhere, his name on the lips of those still around convinced he's gone for good. He's a cloud over the proceedings. No one can deny he's the series antagonist, but conflict isn't always driven by his hand directly. It's generally a consequence of his presence, but not necessarily because of direct actions he may have taken. 

I generally feel that antagonists can be the "Man behind the curtain". Pulling strings, always present, but on screen for a short amount of time while still maintaining maximum impact. Because of this, conflict tends to feel more self-driven on the part of the protagonist. You can get away with false leads and even pseudo-antagonists that mask your main villain's purpose. It's not just about conflict driving the story at this point.

We talk about plot driven stories VS. character driven stories frequently, and we should. But you also need to ask yourself, what kind of conflict is driving this story? The underlying thread should remain the same through the story and it should boil down to a single concept.

If I boiled down that trilogy I talked about earlier, it'd be pretty simple. The protagonist really just wants her father to be proud of her. That's her overriding desire, the conflict is that he's dead and that's never going to happen so she keeps striving higher and higher. The other conflicts are secondary to that goal. So the conflict at the center of it, is not with the antagonist really, but with Self. This is a common thing to see within YA narratives really, as they tend to be about Growth regardless of genre. So while you may have these characters going through all of these things, their core conflict is going to be Self and on occasion Society with villains thrown in to give you something to focus rage on.

Figure out what your core conflict is, that thing driving you character forward, and then build your narrative arc from that. This is why many people will tell you to start your story near or at your inciting incident, as this is what the conflict comes from. It's going to inform everything else that happens, and will be reflected in the ending of the book. If you can do that, your resolution is going to feel a lot stronger, more earned.

Don't be afraid of not having an personified antagonist in your story. Not every story is going to have a mustache-twirling villain to focus on. Sometimes, it's just the wind howling outside the window. It's the crushing weight of an immovable force. Conflict is core to narrative. So if you're struggling with your story, go back to the conflict.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's Get Tense

So, you know how when you start a story and you pick your POV? You settle comfortably (or realize half-way through draft one that you're in the wrong one) and that is that. Sometimes you might have a multiple POV or alternating POVs.

What about tense? Sure, there's present, past and future tense and they all have their place in writing. I for one, am sick of novels that give me the prologue/intro in past tense and then dunk me into present tense for the rest of the book (especially in first person). The sensation is very similar to being doused in cold water. Shock. It's a difficult tense/POV combo to do well and without it sounding intrusive or repetitive. There are maybe three authors I've read where I didn't even realize they'd done it until it was pointed out.

That's how how well it was done. A POV/tense combo should be a backdrop. It shouldn't get in the way of the story your telling, but be the tapestry into which the story is woven. If it stands out, people are going to notice. This is one of those fundamental issues you'll probably hurdle early on in your writing.

But what about more delicate matters of tense? That's right, I'm going to talk about intentionally switching tense in a story for effect.

I had a writing professor in college who saw that I had done this very thing, noted it and told me to keep doing it. It's something you may have to fight a bit over, and it has to be used sparingly. But tense is something that can really showcase a narrator, other characters, settings, etc.

For Example:

The castle's gloom stretched across the valley. 

The castle's gloom stretches across the valley. 

The castle's gloom will always stretch across the valley. 

So, in past tense this implies that perhaps this gloom is gone. Present tense implies it's a constant, something that is and always will be. Future tense also gives this implication, though using more words and has a bit more clarification for a reader who may be briefly confused by a tense change.

That said, they might not be at all.

This works for character traits as well.

My sister might be the most frustrating person I knew, but I wasn’t about to leave her alone in a graveyard crying.

My sister might be the most frustrating person I know, but I wasn’t about to leave her alone in a graveyard crying.

See that? Knew becomes Know and now the reader gets the feeling that this is state of permanence. It lends something the voice of the character. A bit of world-weariness even. Know has more impact that Knew in this context. Technically, yes, you are switching tense within the sentence, but this is also first person. A narrator's voice may not always be perfectly grammatically correct.

A narrator's voice may not always be perfectly grammatically correct. 

I thought that needed to be repeated. In all, changing tenses is a tool that you can use when shaping your narrative. Use it well, and sparingly, and you can deepen the reader's understanding of your characters, settings, and themes.